Warming up to China
Sheikh Hasina’s China visit, encapsulating the discussion over Rohingya issue besides bolstering bilateral ties with China, augurs well for Bangladesh
Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina just concluded her trip to China, returning to Dhaka on July 6 amid reports and prevailing curiosity amongst various political circles if she is really warming up to China. Such inquisitiveness is very natural given the fact that Hasina was accorded huge importance during her China visit.
Hasina's visit can be seen in two parts. First is her proactive participation in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Dalian, outlining economic progress in Bangladesh in an attempt to woo international investors. And, nothing could be a better platform other than the summer Davos for articulating Bangladesh's perceptions on economic issues. Chairman of WEF, Klaus Schwab met Hasina and both held wide-ranging talks on a variety of issues. Hasina's presence in this important forum was significant and her entourage included many businesspersons who had a grand opportunity in Dalian for meeting a host of people evincing keen interest in Bangladesh.
More importantly, Hasina's presence did not go unnoticed, also because she presented a five-point proposal to make the recent Indo-Pacific initiative a success. According to Bangladesh Foreign Secretary, Shahidul Haq, plans are afoot to host the next 'Davos Summit' in Dhaka. This appears to have augured very well with participants. Such a move is also likely to bolster Bangladesh's image, internationally.
The second part of Hasina's China visit is her bilateral talks with Chinese President, Xi Jinping and more crucially with her counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang. As was already announced prior to her departure for China by her Foreign Minister, principal focus of Hasina was to impress upon the Chinese leadership to prevail on Myanmar to take back Rohingya refugees who are really becoming a thorn in the flesh of Bangladesh due to their sheer number (it is estimated that there are nearly a million Rohingyas in Bangladesh today) and disturbingly, many of those are involved in undesirable activities including in human trafficking and other forms of organised crimes.
On Hasina's part, she made the necessary noise in China at the appropriate levels including during her talks with the Communist Party of China (CPC) leader, Diaun Tai who is also the Chinese Foreign Minister specifically demanding his good offices to convince Myanmar about the gravity of the Rohingya problem faced by Bangladesh. Tai is considered an effective leader, raising Bangladesh's hopes of a favourable outcome. It would be pertinent here to point out that during the bilateral talks, Chinese PM assured his Bangladesh counterpart that if needed, he would dispatch his Foreign Minister to Myanmar to project the Bangladesh viewpoints on the Rohingyas.
Diplomacy was at its best when Hasina noted that her ruling Awami League party and CPC ties are further strengthened today dating back to their original relations starting in 1993. Both renewed their beliefs of remaining secular. She also recalled her father Sheikh Mujib's China visit in 1952 and 1957.
Hasina's concern on the Rohingya front was heard alright by those at the helm of the Chinese establishment. Yet, it is highly unlikely China would really do something on this sensitive issue. There is no doubt that China and Myanmar enjoy excellent bilateral relations leading the Bangladesh Prime Minister to draw the Chinese attention during her visit for early repatriation of refugees. Having said that, China would not like to impair its age-old ties with Myanmar by midwifing for Bangladesh on the issue of Rohingyas.
Hasina's China visit is being described as successful in the sense that the Chinese PM termed Bangladesh a partner of China in South Asia adding that he valued the strategic relationship between the two countries. This statement is significant meriting a close examination by the China, India, and Bangladesh watchers, as in the changing geopolitical scenario, their emerging equation seems vibrant and long-lasting.
China and Bangladesh signed as many as nine agreements which, inter alia, include expansion and strengthening of Power grid projects, related loan agreements, provision of Hydrological information of Yalu Zhangbu/Brahmaputra river and its implementation plan, cultural and tourism exchange programmes, Rohingya refugee Rice Aid plans, etc. These MoUs further indicate the signs growing Sino- BD ties. Being overwhelmed by the visit, Hasina is reported to have remarked that there is a lot to be learnt from China. This remark is expected to go a long way in letter and in spirit.
During the bilateral parleys, Hasina stressed for reducing the trade imbalance between the two countries though there has been a 16 per cent increase in trade volume. Today, 97 per cent of Bangladesh products have duty-free access in China. The Bangladesh PM sought Chinese assistance for implementing the Delta Plan 2100 as she called for mobilising resources in implementation of the Teesta River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project. She also reminded the Chinese for hastening the implementation of Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox Bazaar high-speed train service. Significantly again, Hasina was categorical in stating that while Bangladesh provides preferential visas to Chinese nationals under the umbrella of 'on arrival visa', this facility is not available to Bangladeshi nationals. Such forthright remarks display Hasina's fresh wave of confidence in dealing with a superpower with ease, confidence and position of strength. This should not escape the notice of her detractors.
This China visit and Hasina's successfully airing of the Rohingyas' issue and participation in Dalian summit has undoubtedly enhanced her image. The pro-Chinese lobby in Dhaka must be happy with the outcome of the visit as Hasina visibly attempts to transit from an astute politician to a world statesman taking Bangladesh to newer heights. This corroborates her already outlined envisioned ambitious policy meeting several programmes coinciding with Mujibur Rahman's centenary celebrations commencing in 2021.
On July 8, Hasina held a press conference at Dhaka and answered a whole range of questions. The main thrust was on her China trip as she expressed optimism while reiterating that despite China's closeness to Myanmar, the former would make sincere attempts to put forward Bangladesh's repeated pleas to take back the Rohingyas. Surely, the Bangladesh PM was successful in highlighting the Rohingya problem with the Chinese leadership and that was her chief agenda. She claimed that though Myanmar had pushed thousands of Rohingyas into Bangladesh which created a major problem, yet she ensured that Bangladesh's relations with Myanmar were not impaired.
At the press meet, Hasina displayed extraordinary confidence which was conspicuous in her body language as she beamingly cited having attained 8.1 per cent GDP justifying the hike in gas prices as she thought the energy was crucial in economic development. While touching upon the gas issue, she cited that had she been in power when India wanted to use the Bangladesh territory to lay its pipeline, she would easily have allowed access, unlike Khaleda Zia, then at the helm, who did not concede to the Indian request.
A major feature of Hasina's meet with the media persons was her hard-hitting reaction on US Congressman Bradley Sherman, who as the Chairman of the Sub Committee on the Asia Pacific, had recently suggested to the State Department, that the Rakhine state of Myanmar should be brought into the Bangladesh territory. She outrightly rejected this proposal and called for respecting a country's sovereignty. Her statement was unambiguous and was a straightforward message to the US to mind its own business. It was loud and clear.
In sum, Hasina is buoyant with her China visit having received so much attention and assurances. With an overwhelming electoral majority in her bag and successful missions abroad, she looks to be in complete control and Bangladesh ties with China are expected to get deeper with the passage of time.
More needs to be said about her triumphant diplomacy as while 'warming' up to China, she maintained a delicate balance ensuring that feathers are not ruffled with India as the latter remains a time-tested and proven ally and also an all-weather friend.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer and security analyst, and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are strictly personal)